Doubling logging in the Sierra Nevada is the best way to ease fire threats, protect wildlife, create jobs and ultimately have more old-growth forests a century from now, the Forest Service said Thursday.
Without accelerated logging aimed at thinning overstocked forests across 11.5 million acres of the Sierra, fish and wildlife habitat will face far greater risk from wildfires, the agency said in an environmental study.
The study analyzes the Forest Service's proposal to ease logging restrictions imposed by the protection plan the agency adopted in 2001 under President Clinton for the 11 national forests in the Sierra, from south of Yosemite National Park to north of Lake Tahoe.
Timber harvest levels would nearly triple during the first decade, from an estimated 157 million board feet annually under Clinton's "Sierra Nevada framework" plan to 448 million board feet under the proposal the agency designated Thursday as its preferred alternative.
Logging levels would drop after that in the region that produced as much as 1 billion board feet of timber a year during peak levels of the 1980s and 1990s.
The revisions "would continue the framework's preservation of all large, old trees, but would more effectively reduce the risk of fire that threatens those trees and habitat for wildlife, such as the California spotted owl," said Jack Blackwell, regional boss of the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region.
The bigger volume of wood would come primarily from increasing the size of the trees that could be cut - from a maximum of 24 inches in diameter under the old plan to up to 30 inches.
Environmentalists who backed the old strategy said removing bigger trees that are less susceptible to fire will increase fire threats.
The Forest Service said making trees larger than 2-feet thick off limits to logging makes it financially impractical for timber companies to bid on projects aimed at removing smaller trees that pose the greatest fire risk.
"We want to remove dangerous fuels by cutting a few medium-sized trees to help offset the costs of removing many more small-diameter trees, which are unnaturally dense and have little or no commercial value," Blackwell said in a statement from Vallejo, Calif.
"This would allow us to stretch our budget dollars to do more of this badly needed fuel reduction, especially near communities but also in our strategically selected areas to slow the rate of fire spread across broader landscapes," he said.
If adopted, the environmental study estimates the increased logging would reduce the total number of acres burned by wildfires by 23 percent within 50 years.
For the first six decades, both plans would provide about the same amount of older forest stands, the study said. But within 100 years, the new proposal "would support more old forests than would the current direction," it said.
Blackwell said the proposed logging levels would be only half of what they were in the six years before the adoption of spotted owl protections in 1993.
He said the small potential for reductions in habitat for the owl would be minimized by avoiding specific areas most critical to them and that thinning the forests would greatly reduce the long-term risk of habitat loss from catastrophic fire.
The study projects the increased logging plan would cost the federal government about $27 million less than the old plan.
It estimates the boost in timber production would result in 1,894 jobs, compared with 957 jobs projected under the old plan.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)